Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The realistic portrayal of a courageous prostitute in Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” (Ball of Fat) has guaranteed the story a beloved place in French literature. Yet this story is not a conventionally wholesome one; it reflects de Maupassant’s considerable brothel experience. It also reflects de Maupassant’s conviction that prostitutes are inherently noble but victimized women.
The prostitute Boule de Suif is detained, together with a group of her countrymen and countrywomen, by Prussian soldiers who refuse to let the group go unless Boule de Suif sleeps with their commander. This she refuses to do—not because she objects to sleeping with strangers, but because he is the enemy, and this is not a contract entered into freely. She has her pride—a lot of it.
At the beginning of the story, she has shared her dinner with her hungry traveling companions, who are only too happy to eat her food despite the contempt in which they hold her. At the end of the story, after she has submitted to the Prussian’s demands for the sake of the group, her own countrymen are suddenly too good to share their dinners with her. At this point Boule de Suif, weeping for shame and sorrow, seems to be defeated, but consider the story carefully. She has sacrificed herself for the sake of her countrymen; she has acted in good faith. The fact that her travelling companions are too class-conscious and self-righteous to appreciate the beauty of her gesture in no way dims the nobility of her act. Instead, it shames them.
The fact that Maupassant has chosen a prostitute to represent his ideal woman should give us pause. Throughout his life, Maupassant insisted that his ideal woman was his mother—and yet in this story we see the ideal woman is represented by a prostitute. As we look back on the story of de Maupassant’s life, we recall that he was a “mama’s boy,” indulged by an extremely doting mother who had absolutely no interest at all in the child’s self-centered father. Could it be that Maupassant felt subconsciously that his mother prostituted herself to his father in order to give him birth?
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